Don't You Forget About Me: The John Hughes I Knew
To mark the 30th anniversary of The Breakfast Club, P.J. O’Rourke remembers the wit, wisdom, and politics of his friend John Hughes.
Somehow—while we Senior Teens in our forties, fifties and sixties weren’t paying attention—30 years have elapsed since The Breakfast Club was released. To mark the anniversary, the movie will be screened in 430 U.S. theaters on March 26 and March 31. If you are a Judd Nelson/John Bender type who would rather not be seen crying in public, I suggest you don’t go.
The Breakfast Club is John Hughes’s masterwork. Unless Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is John Hughes’s masterwork. The latter is a shout from the peak of adolescent heights. The former is a call from the pit of adolescent depths. In the sea-level bog of middle age, they’ll both make you weep. I watched The Breakfast Club, as it were, home alone.
And I was missing John, who died of cardiac arrest six years ago at 59. I met him in the mid-1970s when he was the youngest vice president ever at Leo Burnett and—for the Ferris Bueller of it—was writing freelance articles in the National Lampoon. I was an editor there. John wrote so fast and so well that it was hard for a monthly magazine to keep up with him.
I had an idea for a “National Lampoon Sunday Newspaper Parody.” It would be a full replica of a big fat Midwestern local paper of the kind extant back then— The Dacron, Ohio, Sunday Republican-Democrat. Dacron was an imaginary city that Doug Kenny and I had created for the “National Lampoon 1964 High School Yearbook Parody,” published a few years before. John agreed to co-edit the newspaper parody.
A few excepts from John’s voluminous contributions:
Cold this winter. Turning warmer in the spring. Then hot and humid all summer. A period of cooling will follow in autumn. Then cold and wintery next winter.
Citizen Foils Telephone Pest
Miss Anna Gribble who called police last week to report continuing threats and abuse from an anonymous phone-caller calling her at 262-6449, has had her phone number removed from listing and changed to 261-6338.
In the “Personals” section of the Classified Ads
Karen. HAPPY VALENTINES DAY even if no boys sent you any cards.—Dad
It would be nice to think that Doug’s and my imaginary Dacron gave John Hughes the inspiration for imaginary Shermer, Illinois, where most of his Bildungsroman movies are set. But John was always making worlds in his head. John had the kind of creativity you don’t see much of outside Genesis chapters 1 and 2.
John told me he knew everyone in Shermer, not just the people in his movies. He knew where they lived and what they did for a living. He could tell you about the amities, enmities, passing acquaintanceships, extramarital relations and distant cousinhoods of assistant principal Vernon, the Benders, the Standishes, the fellow Breakfast Club families of Reynoldses, Clarks and Johnsons plus the ever-vacationing Griswolds, the always-losing-a-kid McCallisters, and Uncle Buck’s bookie.
John was the best, the easiest, the most productive and collaborative person with whom I’ve ever worked. Which sounds like a load of de mortuis nil nisi bonum, except that I, unlike John, don’t have the imagination to make up somebody like John.
When I became editor in chief of the National Lampoon at the end of 1978, the first thing I did was call John at Leo Burnett and say, “I can pay you less.” But I couldn’t get him to move his family from Chicago to New York. “New York City would be okay,” he said, “if they’d clean the place up and move everything back ten feet.”
In the aftermath of National Lampoon’s Animal House success everyone at the magazine had the opportunity to make movies. Only John had movies to make.
John created Shermer, but, per Genesis chapter 3, he gave its residents free will. About Ferris Bueller, John said, “That kid will either become President of the United State or go to prison.” I said they were not mutually exclusive.
Politics being another bond I had with John. I’m not sure he’d be happy with me talking about his politics. He was a private man. But John’s politics have been discussed before. John was identified as a Reaganite in a somewhat inchoate 2006 Slate article by Michael Weiss, the point of which seemed to be that Michael Weiss was still miffed about the Reagan era. And, the same year, in an interview on Showbiz Tonight, Ben Stein (“Economics Teacher” in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) said, “John Hughes and I are among the only Republicans in the picture business.”
I wouldn’t agree with either Weiss or Stein. I have no idea how, or if, John voted. We never bothered to talk about it. And there’s nothing very JUST SAY NO about all the kids in The Breakfast Club (except the presumably this-is-your-brain-on-drugs Ally Sheedy/Allison Reynolds) getting high as the squirrels on Miss Anna Gribble’s telephone wire.
John and I never bothered to talk much about our politics. What we did talk about was the 20th century’s dominant scrambled egghead bien pensant buttinski parlor pinko righty-tighty lefty-loosey nutfudge notion that middle-class American culture was junk, that middle-class Americans were passive dimbulbs, that America itself was a flop and that America’s suburbs were a living hell almost beyond the power of John Cheever’s words to describe.
John said, “You remember the line in The Graduate where the party guest tells the Dustin Hoffman character, ‘I just want to say one word to you. Just one word. Plastics.’ That was 1967. If the Dustin Hoffman character had gotten into plastics he’d be a millionaire by now, instead of riding on a city bus with a crazy girl in a wedding dress.”
We were becoming conservatives—in the most conservational sense. There were things that others before us had achieved and these were worth conserving.
John went first. At 20, he married his high school girl friend Nancy Ludwig and stayed married to her for the rest of his life and set up housekeeping and realized he had to make a living.
“I couldn’t go looking for a job wearing what people were wearing in 1970,” he said. “But I didn’t really know where to buy clothes that people weren’t wearing in 1970. I remembered that before I became hip my mother used to take me to Brooks Brothers in the Loop. So I went there. Behind the shirt counter was the same sales lady who’d been behind the shirt counter when I was a kid. She looked at me for a moment and said, ‘I knew you’d be back.’”
In 1976 John and Nancy had a son, John Hughes III, and in 1979 they’d have another, James. Family was the most conservative thing about John. Walking across the family room in your stocking feet and stepping on a Lego (ouch!) was the fundamental building block of society.
John would do nothing (such as move to New York or, later, stay in Hollywood) to jeopardize his family. But he had a mortgage, a 3-year-old and another child on the way when he left the serious paycheck of Leo Burnett to work at the National Lampoon for birdseed. John must have thought that gambling on humor was a conservative wager.
And humor was another conservative thing about John. We talked a lot about humor. It isn’t—as it’s often assumed to be—shocking, radical, transgressive or just a way to make people laugh. You can do that by farting. The root meaning of humor (Latin humorem, “fluid”) comes from medieval ideas of physiology in which personal traits were determined by the Cardinal Humours, blood, phlegm, choler and melancholy. And if you’ve ever raised that fundamental building block of society, a family, “blood, phlegm, choler and melancholy” pretty much covers it.
Here’s an almost 3,000-year-old Chinese joke about institutional corruption that John and I were fond of:
The Emperor’s cook is slicing meat and hiding half the slices in his apron. “A slice for me. A slice for the Emperor. A slice for me. A slice for the Emperor.” The cook’s wife says, “Stupid, you’re at home.”
You can search the works of Marx, Engles, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Mao, and Patty Hearst when she was “Tania” in the Symbionese Liberation Army for humor, and in vain.
Like all of John’s movies, The Breakfast Club is conservative. Note that the first thing the disgruntled kids in detention do is not organize a protest, not express “class (of 1985) solidarity,” not chant “Students of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your locker combinations” and not claim it takes a Shermer to raise them.
They present themselves, like good conservatives do, as individuals and place the highest value, like this conservative does, on goofing off. Otherwise known as individual liberty.
Imagine, painfully, a 2015 remake of The Breakfast Club. Latino-American, African-American, Islamic-American, Born-Again Christian, Undocumented Alien, Feminist, Post-Feminist, Occupy Activist, Tea Party Member, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender… To cover all the bases of Identity Politics, Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald, Ally Sheedy, Emilio Estevez and Anthony Michael Hall would have had to double- and triple-up. And wear some strange cosmetics.
John kept his characters alike as possible, within the spectrum of high school anthropology, in order to make them as different as possible, within the spectrum of individuals. All five members of the Breakfast Club have Anglo-Saxon last names. All are attractive. They could be related (and John would have known) if five bland WASPy sisters had married two brunettes, two blonds and a redhead of varying abilities and intellects.
John worked with types but wouldn’t let them represent kinds. Claire Standish may be elected Prom Queen, but she isn’t the elected representative of the silk stocking district in the Congress of High School Detention. Nor has Shermer been gerrymandered to make sure that John Bender is the official representative of the under-employed labor force facing wage stagnation.
There’s nothing revolutionary about The Breakfast Club. On purpose. The kids don’t try to abolish authority and institutions. They elude and modify them with wit. This is a comedy. The total abolition of authority and institutions would be a tragedy. If you get rid of all authority and institutions, worse authority and institutions arise in their place. Any historical examples to the contrary since 1776 had escaped John’s (and my) notice.
That the kids’ troubles all stem from their families isn’t an accident of lazy writing. John was never lazy about back-story, or anything else. It’s that fundamental building block. The Lego that got stepped on matters more than the ugly Lego structures of authority and institutions.
To make them funny, the Breakfast Club members are subject to the Cardinal Humours—hoodlum Judd Nelson/John Bender’s blood, brianiac Anthony Michael Hall/Brian Ralph Johnson’s phlegm, jock Emilio Estevez/Andy Clark’s choler, basket case Ally Sheedy/Allison Reynolds’s melancholy and popular girl Molly Ringwald/Claire Standish’s (what I think of as the fifth Cardinal Humor) being a popular girl.
To make them conservative, they immediately start operating upon the three basic principles in The Wealth of Nations by that conservative fundamental block builder Adam Smith: Pursuit of self-interest, division of labor and freedom of trade.
No member of the Breakfast Club questions pursuit of self-interest, though it takes the five of them the whole movie to figure out where their self-interests lie. Even apparently self-destructive Allison Reynolds abjures from mind-altering substances, her mind being altered plenty enough already. And manifestly self-destructive John Bender declines to take a fatal punch at assistant principal Vernon, no matter how well-deserved.
Division of labor is the theme of the movie. Each kid discovers what’s valuable in the others. And—cue sentimental conservative favorite “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” by Simple Minds—what’s valuable in him or her self.
Freedom of trade is the message of the movie. Albeit the trade is conducted in the coin of the adolescent realm, love.
But not just the face-suck love of Claire and Bender or Andy and Allison. A good conservative knows his Western Civ. And the only thing that’s made Civ. in the West worthwhile is love. So much so that the ancient Greeks had four names for it.
Storage—acceptance, the first thing the Breakfast Club learns.
Philia—friendship among equals, the best thing the Breakfast Club learns.
Eros—Claire and Bender, Andy and Allison.
Agape—love for the whole world, Shermer, Illinois, included. Brian Ralph Johnson triumphant with his manifesto (signed “The Breakfast Club”) to assistant principal Vernon, who may have been feeling a little agape himself, drinking beer in the school basement with the janitor.
It’s a sentimental movie—influenced more by emotion than reason. John hedges his bets with a speech by Claire about how the members of the Breakfast Club will all go back to ignoring each other at school on Monday. But I doubt John believed that. Plus I am, like many conservatives, a sentimental guy. As Finley Peter Dunne—the best Chicago humorist until John Hughes—had his Irish barkeep Mr. Dooley say, “Damp eye, dry heart.”
I didn’t cry at John’s funeral. His death was too shocking, radical, transgressive. But after his burial, when I drove out the gates of Lake Forest Cemetery, I saw something I hadn’t seen in 45 years. It was a little sign reading “Cemetery Road” above a bar across a sandy track along the cemetery’s wall.
For a couple of years in the 1960s I had, like John, gone to a suburban Chicago high school. On Friday and Saturday nights when the weather was warm kids from suburban Chicago high schools would park on Lake Forest’s residential streets, walk stealthily to Cemetery Road, slip under the bar and sneak down the sandy track to the Lake Michigan beach. It was an inversion of the Shermer High School detention experience with all sorts of assistant principal Vernon-like people such as the Lake Forest police trying to keep us out rather than in. Sometimes we had to hide in the dunes with our Budweiser and beach towels.
Maybe John and I had been there at the same time. We were only three grades apart. Anyway, Cemetery Beach was where the hoods and the jocks and the dweebs and the basket cases and the popular girls worked it out in our day. That’s where we signed our social contract.
When I saw Cemetery Road, then I began to cry.